Photographing butterflies

One of the most enjoyable types of nature photography in the warmer part of the year is capturing images of butterflies. These beautiful and ephemeral insects epitonise summer as they flutter on jewelled wings through the landscape. I can think of few pursuits I enjoy more than chasing butterflies on a sunny day or sitting in a meadow and watching them as they visit flowers, defend territories and court each other.

This post will look at some of the factors to take into account when looking for butterflies to photograph. I will also include some tips on how I like to shoot and process my butterfly images. I have annotated the images in the post to include when each of the species I have photographed is on the wing and in which habitat you may find them. Whilst I am posting this at the end of summer, many butterflies will still fly on warmer days into the autumn.

Adonis blue | Sole foodplant Horseshoe Vetch | May-June, Aug – Sept | Chalk & limestone grassland

Butterflies live in a variety of habitats, and you will need to do a little research if you are looking for a particular species to photograph. Whilst there are a few species that will turn up in many locations, many butterflies will need the presence of their foodplant (the plant upon which eggs are laid and caterpillars feed) and a suitable nectar source or aphid honeydew for the adult insect to feed upon. Many butterflies will also require sheltered sites, to enable them to bask and to provide warmth for egg development. This combination of factors coupled with the loss of habitat to development and neglect, and the widespread use of agricultural and domestic insecticides means that some species are highly restricted in ther range and in decline.

A website I frequently check if I’m heading out to find any species I am not already familiar with is the NBN Atlas it’s a brilliant resource for exploring the wildlife in your area (or an area you are visiting) and for learning about species, their conservation status and range. For butterflies it is also worth looking at the social media pages and websites of your local Butterfly Conservation branch.

Common blue | main foodplant birdsfoot trefoil | May – June, Aug – Sept (2-3 broods) | grassland,s, dunes, woodland clearings, road verges, downland.

As well as looking in the right habitat for butterflies, you will need to be aware of which time of year the species you want to photograph is on the wing. In some species this may happen only once during the year, but for others, such as the common blue, 2 or 3 broods may take flight during the warmer months.

Marbled White | Food plants – Red & Sheep’s bit fescue, Yorkshire fog and Tor-grass |June – Aug | Unimproved grassland – favours purple flowers such as knapweed.

If you have a garden or outdoor space at home or at work, you can also plant to attract pollinators such as butterflies. If you are doing this, then it’s probably best to see if you can source local native seed and to ensure you don’t use herbicides when clearing any area prior to planting. Gardening for polinators helps to connect up islands of habitat, providing corridors through which wildlife can move across out landscape. Photographing nature on the doorstep also helps to minimise your carbon emissions associated with travel.

Dark green fritillary |

Top tips

  1. Be aware of the temperature. Butterflies won’t fly until they have warmed up. This is usually around 12C, so in the early morning when you locate your butterfly you can take your time to compose your shot and to use a tripod.
  2. Watch them roost and return in the morning before they warm up to get shots with dew and soft dawn light. Butterflies won’t move once they have gone to roost until they warm up. Understanding the roosting behaviour of the butterfly you want to photograph will help you to spot them in the evening. Orange tips will often roost on the flower heads of cow parsley whilst common blues will roost on grass stalks.
  3. Don’t have the sun behind you approaching butterflies. It’s very easy to forget about your shadow when you are stalking an insect and if it casts itself over a butterfly it’s going to fly away before you get your shot.
  4. Let them come to you. place yourself yourself in a patch of their favourite nectar plants and wait. If you remain still they will usually come to accept your presence and come fairly close to nectar.
  5. Don’t follow the same insect for too long trying to get your shot. Disturbing them for long periods will use up their energy reserves. Let them carry on and seek another one to photograph.
  6. Know the habitat your chosen species lives in, nectar and food plants and the time of year it will be on the wing.
  7. Follow local Butterfly Conservation groups on social media. This will be really helpful as they post lots of information and images on what has been seen locally. And visit local BC reserves.
Chalkhill blue | Sole foodplant Horsehoe vetch | July – Sept | Chalk & limestone grassland

Recording any sightings of butterflies, eggs and cattepillars can help conserve and protect species. Records can be submitted to your local BC branch or through apps such as iRecord . Even if you can’t identify a species, submitting a photograph is useful, and someone will most likely identify your butterfly for you.

Marsh Fritillary |main foodplant Devil’s bit scabious | May – July | open, damp grassy habitats with tussock forming grasses, calcareous, heath and mire

Taking and processing images

Most of the images I have taken of butterflies have been captured in the late morning and middle of the day. If you are at work, they are an ideal subject to chase during your lunch hour if you need a moment of nature connection to help alleviate any stress. I think planting pollinator friendly plants around our work spaces would really improve the environment for both us and nature.

Green veined whites | Foodplants – crucifers, nasturtiums | April & June – August | Damp, sheltered areas, hedges, river banks, ditches, ponds, meadows, moorland and woodland rides.

Whilst I do own a couple of zoom lenses, I pefer to take pictures of butterflies with a macro and use my Tamron 90mm f/2.8 nearly all the time. Even in the middle of the day if you are quite and patient you can get pretty close to insects.

I like to shoot from the same level or below the butterfly if possible, and into the light if it isn’t too harsh. Making sure the insects eye is in focus will make the picture. So when the butterfly is at rest with it’s wings closed you can use a really wide aperture and get both the eye and wing in focus. I rather like to let the wings blur and create soft ethereal images so I tend to keep a really shallow depth of field even when the wings are not in the same plane as the eyes.

Orange tip |foodpplants – cucifers | April – June | Hedgerows, verges and woodland edges

I shoot in RAW and process in Lightroom, in a similar to the way to how I process botanical images (see my blog on ethereal flower photography for more information). When processing butterfly images it’s important not to alter the colouration, you want the image to portray the creature truthfully. So processing butterfly images is far more subtle, so any desaturation I do to soften the tones in the image is undertaken with care not to alter the colour in the wings and body of the insect. Alternatively I may on occasion use masking layers in Photoshop if I wish to take harsh yellow tones from the background and leave my subject natural.

Small blue | Foodplant Kidney vetch | May – June, occasionally July – Aug | Dry grasslands, chalk and limestone, coastal grassland & dunes, quarries, brownfield sites.

I hope the information in this post may be helpful to anyone starting out photographing butterflies. Thank you so much for reading.

Thank you

If you have enjoyed this blog and found it useful I’d be really grateful if you would consider buying a card (for less than the price of a coffee) at my online card shop, HERE. Or if you would like to share any images you take of butterflies I would love to see them.


8 thoughts on “Photographing butterflies

  1. I really enjoyed reading your blog, thank you. I like how you catalogue your butterflies and all of your tips on fieldcraft. The only difference with my approach is the lens used. I’ve tried my 60mm macro (120mm DSLR equiv) and do not find it as effective as my telephotos or fixed focal 300mm f4 (600mm equiv) lens as I can keep my distance more effectively. That way it is less intrusive for the butterfly and easier for me. Butterflies are magical creatures and their mystery, freedom and fragility are joys to treasure.

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    1. Thanks so much, John. I’m really pleased you enjoyed the post. I must admit I do miss a lot of shots as I don’t like to be close to a butterfly for more than a minute, like you say it is intrusive. Unless of course it is roosting. I have been enjoying taking butterfly images with the OMD EM10miii and a 40-150mm f/4 (300mm effectively) which has allowed me to spend more time at a distance with a single subject, but I do like to shoot at the wider appertures my macro lens allows me. They are a joy, and I shall be talking a walk later in he hope of finding some clouded yellows.

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  2. I envy you Jo, living in Dorset, you have such a better range of butterflies than here in Yorkshire! However, we do have a house in SW France which is a butterfly heaven, though with COVID that has been out of bounds this year. I’m glad you are an Olympus user. I use the EM1 mk 2 and like you have the 40-150 pro lens though the 300mm f4 is my favourite. I’m now going to try and find your wild flower blog as this summer I’ve really tried to take more imaginative photos of wild flowers, and identify them. I’ve just bought a selection of your cards as I so love your images. Just a quick question on settings, do you set your menu to Muted or Natural for colour? Or do you create your wonderful muted effects in editing? Good luck with your hunt for clouded Yellow! They are a favourite of mine.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks John, I do love Dorset. SW France must be wonderful, I haven’t travelled abroad in over 15 years now and do miss the adventure and nature, we have so little in this country compared to mainland Europe. I hope you’re able to travel again soon. And thanks so much for purchasing some cards, it really is appreciated. As for settings, Natural. I create some muted effects shooting through petals (holding them up to the lens and half covering it) some in the field, and some in post. I’ll share any igaes if I find a clouded yellow! Thanks 🙂

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